I woke to hear Father coughing. The sun had not yet risen, and the birds of the morning chorus were only just waking. Lighting a candle, I hurried to his doorway. He was sitting up and hacking furiously. I choked down a sob - it was so horrible to see him like this - and hurried to the linen cupboard. I selected a cloth, dampened it, and took it to him. His forehead was hot, and he was shivering. Placing the cloth on his head, I stroked his hair and called to Eden.
“Eden?” I heard a soft whisper in reply. “Fetch Dr Sansome for me, will you?”
“From down the road?”
“Yes, Eden, run! Go quickly!” I heard the door open and swing closed again.
“It’s alright Papa, we’ll have you right soon.” I murmured into his shaking back. A tear ran down my cheek. “You’ll stay with us, won’t you? Won’t you Father?” He could not hear me. He just coughed more.
It may only have been a few minutes until Eden came back with the doctor, but it felt so painfully long. Father, fortunately, had coughed less and less, but I still did not like the sound he was making. The doctor rushed in to take over. “When did he start?” He said while unpacking his satchel. “I-er, perhaps 10 minutes ago?” He nodded.
“Thank you, Lydia. I think you should go and see your sister.”
I nodded, and watched him for a moment, before leaving the room and finding Eden staring into the fire. The orange glow of the embers flickered on her face, and she stared absently into the flames.
“Eden?” I called softly, and she started, shaking herself from the land in which she was consumed.
“Yes Liddy? Is Papa going to be alright?” I sighed, smiling for her benefit, and pulled her down onto my lap.
“Papa’s very sick, Edie. I hope Dr Sansome can make him better, but we do not know for certain. I think you should go back to sleep - you’ve been up and running around, and we do not want you to be tired, do we?” Eden shook her head, wearily clambered off my lap. I stood and took her hand, and led her back to her bedroom. She fell asleep relatively easily, as the birds outside started to sing and light seeped across the sky.
Dr Sansome had been in with him for a while - at least half an hour. I knocked on the door. A grunt consented my entry, and I pushed the door open. Papa was asleep, Dr Sansome leaning over him with stethoscope. He straightened as I walked in. A weak smile flitted over his face, and he glanced at Father.
“Can we talk outside?” I nodded and backed out. He closed the door behind him.
“Your father is very sick, Lydia. I believe he has pneumonia.” My shoulders slumped and a sigh escaped my lips. “He is so weak now - after two bouts of pneumonia, I would not expect him to make it through this one.” I gnawed my lip, the sharp pain holding back the tears that would surely escape. “I’m afraid he is going to get worse and worse as the days pass - you need to know this. If you would like, I can take him into my practice to keep his coughs from scaring Eden, but you would have to pay extra.” I shook my head, tears still threatening.
“We just cannot.” I sobbed, emotion finally taking over. “I do not have enough money.” He reached an arm out to pat my shoulder, but seemed to think better of it.
“I know the financial situation you’re in, Lydia, but Kenneth needs to be taken care of.” He gestured toward the room. “Even if it is only to make him more comfortable. I can organise for a nurse to come and sit with him every day, and Eden will be more actively supervised.”
“No, Eden won’t be a problem. I can send her across the road to Mrs. Henley’s. How much would the nurse cost?” The doctor looked studied the roof.
“I can most likely manage to get one for 15 pence a day.” I counted in my head.
“Yes, I think I could pay that, if I do overtime. Mrs Henley would feed Eden, I’m sure.”
“It’s agreed then?” I nodded. “Excellent. I’ll have a nurse over as soon as possible, but I should think it best if you stayed here while she comes.”
“Thank you, Doctor.” He smiled sympathetically, and returned to the room to gather his things.
“I’ll see you soon, I expect.” He waved on his way out. I stood in the doorway and watched him go, for want of something to occupy myself with. Eventually, I crossed the street to number three, and knocked at the door. Wilhelmina Henley, the mother of Eden’s friend Thelma was a nice woman, very accommodating and flexible. Another child in the house would hardly bother her, as she already had five.
After everything was sorted - “Of course it’s no problem dear, you just look after your father,” - I told Eden of the news. She seemed to have no problem with spending the days with her dear friend. In fact, she was quite excited and happy. I decided against extinguishing the glow in her cheeks, which would have happened, I’m sure, if I had told her our father had contracted pneumonia for the third time. She had been through enough.
I set out on the quarter of an hour walk to the post office, on Beauchamp St. Mrs Sanders was already there. I pushed open the door, a bell tinkling in the back as I did. Mrs Sanders hustled out from behind the counter, a stack of envelopes gripped in one hand and two packages balanced on the other.
“Oh, Lydia! How are we this morning then? I have a few packages to deliver so you’ll have to handle the counter ... Oh, Miss Alders is meant to be coming in today - she’ll want to ask about the newspaper being delivered - tell her that we do not have enough staff so she’ll just have to come and buy it like everyone else.” Mrs Sanders rolled her eyes. “Presumptuous woman.”
“Er, Mrs Sanders?” The plump woman turned around. “Yes, dear.”
“My father - well, he’s very sick-”
“Again?” I sighed.
“Yes, a third time - with pneumonia. He isn’t expected to live more than a few days.” I gulped down a cry that was rising in my throat. “For the doctor’s fees, I was wondering if I might work overtime this week? Or - just as long as...” Mrs Sanders leaned down and dropped her things. She embraced me, and I leaned into her, crying onto her shoulder.
“Of course it is alright, Lydia.” She murmured. “Now, I’ve got to run these around, so you’ll be alright behind the counter?” I nodded, wiping my eyes. She picked her things up again, and smiled at me as she left.
Miss Alders came as promised, and it was, in all, a busy day. Mr Jones the barman came in to post his rent to the council, and various women wanted to buy stamps.
I watched everyone come in, browse, and come to the counter. My life was changed, but no one was aware of it. It was completely insignificant in the eyes of others, and I guessed it would stay that way. No one knew of my problems, and I did not know of theirs. And unless their problems concerned me, it would stay that way.
I stayed at the post office until 7 o’clock, two hours after I usually finished. I planned to come in early tomorrow, and open up to give Mrs Sanders a break.
It was an uneventful walk home, but I did hurry, and managed to get home in 10 minutes. Eden ran over as soon as she saw me in the street, and we went in together. I told the girl to run and get her books and paper and settle down in front of the fire, which had been kept stoked. I assumed the nurse had done that.
In Father’s room, a plump young woman who introduced herself as Mary greeted me. Father was asleep, so our short exchange was kept to low tones. She said that he had slowly gotten worse throughout the day, a short coughing bout arising every hour, the hacking getting worse, and blood eventually spotting the phlegm. Her face was appropriately grave, and in whispered tones she implied she did not expect him to get through the night. She offered to stay free of charge, and gladly I accepted.
I tried to ignore the hacking that sounded from the bedroom as I taught Eden the difference between ‘its’ and ‘it’s’, but soon it became too much to bear. I set a small task for Eden and went to check on Father.
I gently pushed the door open. Mary was stooped over father, patting a cold cloth on his forehead, and murmuring gently to him. His coughing resided as I watched, his frail frame shaking less. Mary evidently felt my presence, and turned once he was settled. She gestured for me to come in. Hesitantly, I crossed the wooden floorboards and sat next to my father.
Once a solid, tall man with broad shoulders and a smiling face, my father had changed over the past three years. He had become hunched, his hair - previously a chestnut brown, like my own, was now streaked with silver and grey and lay limp around his head. His face had aged years, looking instead like a 60-year-old man rather than the 38 year old he really was. The glow had left his cheeks, and his chest was no longer the strong, muscled thing I would laugh and cry into. Illness had ruined him, and I had never wanted my father to become the shell he was. All the life had left him, and the scraps he held so desperately on to were dying now, too. It was only a matter of time, I thought, and really, it would be for the better. Even if he recovered, he would never be the courageous, outgoing man he once was. And once illness has taken hold, the victim is never really going to be cured. The memory of the disease that plagued them for so long will forever reside, hidden until something unexpected drags it up from the depths of their conscience.
It would be for the best, I decided. It would be for the best, when it came.
A groan disturbed Lydia’s dreams. She woke, and sat up, knocking her head on the cabin roof. The groaning was coming from below her - her mother’s bunk. Lydia dropped down onto the rocking floor, landing lightly from weeks of practise. Marie-Alice was propped against the bunk’s pillar, eyes closed, wincing, and massaging her belly.
“Lydia... The baby’s coming. You need to get-” Marie-Alice was cut off, a cry of pain interrupting her, contorting her features. She slumped back on the bed, unable to talk.
“Mama! Are you alright?” Marie-Alice managed to shake her head, but started breathing heavily, each breath laboured.
Lydia knew nothing about babies. She wanted to help, but she just stood beside her mother, stroking her forehead the way she had done to her so many times. Tears of frustration welled up in her eyes. She wanted to do something! She just felt so helpless, wishing she knew what to do. Her mother had cleaned her knees when she fell over, but that was different. Mother had helped her so many times, and now, when she needed help the most, Lydia could not help her. She needed to fetch Father, or the doctor, or someone!